What is a better follow up to the 100 years of John Deere tractors than a visit to Froelich, Iowa where it all began? Keith and I headed to the small Village of Froelich. Our first sight was the bronze plaque dedicated to John Froelich, who designed the first gasoline powered traction engine to move back and forth. I recall learning about John Deere in my history books, but the name of John Froelich never came up. I don’t remember learning about him until I started writing about antique tractors. Here at the Froelich 1890’s Village Museum, they are all about getting the word out!
Inside the General Store built in 1891 we signed up to take a tour and Denise Schutte was our guide. We listened to a film about John Froelich and saw a model that appeared to be approximately a half scale model of the Froelich tractor. John Froelich was born on November 24, 1849. An educated man, after college, he along with a blacksmith, William Mann ran a mobile grain elevator and threshing business. Because of all the difficulties with steam (hard to move, fire danger etc.) Froelich was all about trying to find an easier way, and that way was a gasoline powered engine. He, along with assistance from Mann, designed a vertical, one-cylinder engine mounted on the running gear of a steam traction engine.
They think that the traction engine was designed in the mill that was located right behind the grocery store. This all happened right here in Froelich Iowa.
Trying it out
Every year, John Froelich threshed wheat in Langford, South Dakota. In 1892, after creating his new gasoline powered engine, he left Froelich, Iowa and headed for South Dakota with the new “tractor” along with the a new threshing machine. That fall they threshed 72,000 bushels of small grain and the new “tractor” was a success.
New Company, Deere and Moving On
Riding on this success, Froelich along with a group of investors in 1895 formed the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company. When the traction engines didn’t sell, the company moved into building stationary engines, which they were quite successful with. However, John Froelich’s heart was not in engines, but in tractors, so he left the company.
The Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company did go on to develop the Waterloo Boy and Model “R” and “N” tractors. These were very successful and they caught the eye of the John Deere company. Deere was looking for a tractor in 1918 to add to their ever growing product line.
While John Froelich left the company he started, he did continue inventing. Listed in the Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame, he is credited with inventing many things: a washing machine, dish washer and dryer, a mechanical corn picker, and the mounting of a gasoline engine on his well drilling outfit. It is this invention that led him to modify the gasoline engine for a tractor for threshing. John Froelich also invented the first air conditioner.
There are many buildings to tour in the Village of Froelich Iowa. The first of course is the store. Because of the railroads close proximity to the store, it was covered with steel to make it fire proof. The general store was also the post office. We had fun rummaging through the store and looking at all the items from the time period as well as tractor related items available today.
Behind the store as we moved on our tour, Denise said was originally the mill where they think John Froelich built the Froelich tractor. That is now gone and in 1920, they built a freight warehouse. The warehouse now has been converted to an area where we were able to view some of Froelich’s wash machines that he designed and see what the building was like when the Burlingame family (the last to own the general store before it belonged to the foundation) allowed it to be rented out to families in need. The building was a two-family residence for years.
There is an area where dairy items are on display and another where we saw a lovely display of model barns.
The museum also includes a school house that was built in 1866. We had fun sitting in the small desks while Denise showed us around. We moved onto the blacksmith shop with a reproduction Froelich tractor inside, and the cool 1872 train depot that has a very neat old wagon inside.
Toy enthusiasts will enjoy the Cowell semi building which showcased the half, quarter and eight scale semi tractors and trailers. Keith and I walked over the neat miniature covered bridge on our way to the lovely 1903 dairy barn that serves as a meeting space and displays with some great farm history. The barn belonged to local dairy farmers Joyce and Julius Dettman.
IH fans will enjoy the cool IH equipment setting around as well.
Froelich, Iowa is a place of historic significance. If you have a bit of time, head this direction and check it out. Hopefully the next generation will know who John Froelich is and what his contribution to agriculture is!
For more information, log onto http://www.froelichtractor.com/index.html.